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With 23 manufacturers making tablet style computers, and no-one even really knowing what a tablet is and isn't, buying a tablet computer is very difficult to get right.

If you're one of the 50 million people expected to buy a tablet in the next year, you need this guide to help you make the right buying decision.

 
 
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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 1

With prices ranging from $100 to $1000, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a Tablet

The Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 - a 7" screen tablet now coming on sale, is one of the eagerly anticipated new iPad competitors.

Which of the growing number of tablet devices is best for you?  Our Buyer's Guide helps you to answer that question.

 

 

Apple's iPad release has been transformational, creating a new product category that has won immediate and massive acceptance in the marketplace.

Unsurprisingly, many other companies (23 for sure, so far) are rushing to create competing products, and unsurprisingly also, there is still an evolving lack of clarity about what constitutes a tablet, a lack of clarity that some lesser known companies are using to exploit the market.

So here's a buying guide to help you understand your choices and make an appropriately informed decision about what type of tablet with what options would be best suited for you.

The Boom in 'Tablet' style Computing Devices

It is a bit like the wild west out there with the exploding growth of an ill-defined new consumer product, the 'tablet' computer.

The there have been computing devices referred to as tablets before, and for many years, but they have never been more than marginal products and never mainstream.  The appearance of the iPad earlier in 2010 both redefined and rejuvenated the tablet concept, and for the balance of this article, when we talk about 'tablet' computers, we are not referring to the old, bulky, user-unfriendly devices that failed to win marketplace acceptance; we are talking about the new generation of devices springing up from the iPad launch.

Due to the newness and the vagueness of what a tablet now is (and is not) and the additional confusion of previous devices also called tablets but which have nothing in common with this new concept, many companies are taking any sort of product that has some sort of a touch screen and basic audio and video playback capabilities, probably combined with Wi-fi, and calling it a tablet, then perhaps hopefully pricing it at vastly more money than it is really worth.

Overpricing is probably a short term phenomenon - watch what will happen once the market becomes filled with competing devices.  It seems reasonable to expect prices to then start plunging, and many of the 23 plus companies who are currently planning to release tablet devices will disappear out of the market as quickly as they arrived.

But, until that happens, and equally importantly, until people clearly understand what a tablet should be, we return to our opening statement.  It is a bit like the wild west out there, and it is definitely a case of caveat emptor.

With prices ranging almost exactly from $100 or slightly less at the low end, and all the way up to $1000 or slightly more at the high end, and with additional costs potentially associated with buying software (ie applications or 'apps') and for data access (maybe a one or two year contract locking you in to ongoing costs), table style computers can be very expensive, and there's plenty of opportunity to choose the wrong unit.

Most importantly of all, there's not yet any clear correlation between price and value.

What is a Tablet Computer

Let's start off by understanding what a tablet computer probably is (and is not).  The vagueness of the definition is perhaps best exemplified by considering an iPod Touch, an iPhone, and an iPad.

All three run almost exactly the same iOS operating system, all three offer Wi-fi connectivity, two of the three have cameras (not the iPad), two of the three can access 3G data networks (not the iPod Touch) and two of the three come without any type of contractual lock (not the iPhone).  Lots of other features are shared between two or all three devices.

But only one of these three devices is deemed to be a tablet style computer - the iPad.  And in understanding why this is, we get the first defining element of what makes a tablet type computer - it needs to have a color touch screen that is larger than that found on a typical phone or MP3/video player.

This touch screen requirement also closes off another 'almost tablet' type of computing device - eBook readers, which are also enjoying a massive surge in popularity, but which generally do not have color touch screens.  The mention of eBooks opens up an entire sub-topic we'll carefully avoid here - do you need both an eBook reader and a tablet computer?

What else is required in order for a device to be fairly labeled a tablet?

We'd suggest it needs to be lightweight and portable.  It must have Wi-Fi connectivity, and be able to play audio and video.  It must have a reasonably fully featured browser (many applications choose to interact with devices through a web interface rather than through a program, due to the web interface being hopefully more universal and less platform dependent) and email capability.  In addition to a web browser and email client, it also needs to have a reasonable range of application software allowing it to handle many ordinary type computing tasks (including the ability to display PDF files, and to read Word and Excel documents).

Beyond these basics, everything else is more or less optional and may or may not be present to a greater or lesser extent.

Features to Consider

We've prepared an Excel spreadsheet for you to download and use when comparing different tablet computers providing a hopefully convenient way for you to summarize the distinguishing differences between competing products and to even calculate scores to help you identify the most suitable tablet solution for your needs.

How to use the Excel spreadsheet

You can use this either in 'simple' mode or in 'expert' mode.

In simple mode, simply use the spreadsheet as you would a piece of paper on which to take notes, and ignore the columns asking you to set relative importance and to give scores.  This will allow the spreadsheet to be a convenient reference piece for you to remember what issues might be important/relevant in your buying decision, and to see at a glance how different tablets stack up against each other under those issues.

In so-called expert mode, you can have the spreadsheet calculate an overall score for each different tablet you are evaluating.

This requires you to do one and possibly two extra things.

The first thing is that you need to score each tablet on the attributes that are important to you.  Higher scores mean the particular tablet you are scoring is better at that particular thing, and lower scores of course mean it is worse.  We suggest you use a 0 - 5 scale for this, but you can use any scale you like.

The second thing is you can also adjust the importance of each different feature.  We have given them all a default setting of 3, but you can reduce the value of things that don't really matter, and/or increase the value of things that do matter.  Again, we suggest using a score of 0 - 5, but you can use any range you like.

Now for one very important thing.  The spreadsheet automatically calculates the total score for each tablet by multiplying each feature's relative importance by each product's score, and then adding them all up.  This will give a somewhat helpful total number for you at the bottom of the spreadsheet for each different tablet.

BUT.  If you don't score each tablet on all the same features, you'll get misleading scores.  For example, say you know the battery life of two tablets, and give one a 3 score and the other a 4 score, but you don't know the battery life of the third tablet you are ranking.  If you don't put a value in that score box, the system will give the tablet a 0 score for battery life, whereas obviously (presumably!) it actually deserves some sort of score.  We suggest you fill in all the blanks you don't know with average or slightly below average scores and highlight them so you know what you don't know, and update your guess/average scores as/if/when you find out more about each laptop.

In addition to the brief explanatory notes attached to many of the title cells down the left hand side of the spreadsheet, here are some more detailed comments, following the same order as the spreadsheet.

Basic Facts

Be sure to comparison shop for the lowest price for the unit(s) you become most interested in.

Apple iPads are not discounted, but most other brands of tablet computer may be available at lower prices through some sources than others.

Support

Support can be an issue, as was exemplified unfortunately by Google's short lived (some might say 'disastrous') foray into cell phones, when users of its Nexus 1 phone got stuck in a nightmare whereby Google, T-Mobile and HTC (the underlying manufacturer of the phone) all blamed each other for problems and said it was someone else's fault to fix the problems that arose.  This was made even worse by Google not providing phone support.

So be sure you'll have ready access to good support for the hardware and operating system.  Of course, application support - other than for those applications provided standard with the unit - will be the responsibility of each individual app vendor/developer, but for underlying hardware and OS issues, make sure there is someone you can conveniently turn to who will helpfully assist, preferably with phone support.

Size

The issues of size and weight are much more important than you might think.

For sure, the size is largely predetermined by the size of the screen (fully discussed in the next section), but the necessary bezel around the screen (so that you can hold the unit without touching the touch sensitive screen and confusing the unit) varies in size, as does the thickness of the unit too.

Sadly, and by definition, no tablets will fit in your shirt pocket, so they'll all need to be carried in some sort of carry bag if you are taking them with you, but even so, smaller is definitely better than bigger.

Weight

Even more important than size is weight.  You might think an iPad weighing 'only' 1.5 or 1.6 lbs is amazingly light, and that weight is almost an irrelevance, but this is absolutely not the case at all.

Trust me.  When you actually hold your iPad unsupported for any period of time, it will quickly become heavy and uncomfortable, and you'll be looking for convenient ways to rest it on something rather than to hold it unassisted.

The lighter these units can be, the better and more usable they are.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.
 

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Originally published 30 Sep 2010, last update 28 Nov 2012

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
4 - Battery Life and Extensions
5 - Audio & video - recording, storing and replaying
6 - GPS and other LBS type sensors
7 - Data Connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G
8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
9 - Everything else
Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet
 
 
 

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